My overall premonition around coming back to work in this New Year is not positive. I feel quite anxious, a real sense of imminent dread. On a personal level, it looks to be an enormously exciting year, with a long yearned-for change of job – as well as a new research project – in the coming months. Both of these represent great steps forward for me, and I’ll be writing about both in time. So what is it that’s making me so nervous? In short, it’s where UK higher education might find itself at the end of 2019. In some ways the year ahead looks like the perfect storm, an unfavourable planetary alignment of several major events, any one of which would wreak significant damage on the sector. Somehow, by accident or by design, they all appear to be coming to a head this year.
There has been a major review of university and other post-18 education funding, the findings and recommendations of which are due out this year. Given the state of the economy, and the Conservative government’s continuing insistence on a politics of austerity, they can only be looking to save money. This comes right after recent changes in the way that student debt is calculated in our national finances, no longer counting as an asset in terms of loans that are repaid, but the recognition that a good portion of them aren’t. In short, they’re a partial debit, not an overall credit. The rumours seem to point to the fact that the review – led by Philip Augur – does not augur well. (Pun intended.)
A fall in fees might look like good news in terms of access to university, as it saddles students with less debt and thereby reduces, to some, a disincentive to study. Sort of, yes, but a proportion of the currently high fees has gone into supporting less affluent students through their studies. A drop in fees only works there if the shortfall in money coming from students (through government loans) is made up by the state in the shape of grants. This is unlikely, unless that shortfall is given in exchange for more of a say in what kinds courses (particularly sciences) are provided, and by whom (particularly high status universities), because they offer better ‘value for money’. Don’t get me started on ‘VfM’…
While the drop in fees is probably bad for all universities, it may be cataclysmic for some. Newer universities (which are better at serving disadvantaged students) tend to have their eggs in one basket – students, rather than research – so they are very exposed by reductions in fees. A number of others also appear to be tottering on the verge of insolvency, having borrowed heavily to build extensive new facilities. These institutions are looking to save money by divesting themselves of staff, putting a freeze on promotion, and/or increasing student numbers. This will likely not end well for their staff, or students. This all comes along at a time when students numbers are down anyway, in part due to the fact that the volume of school leavers is shrinking due to a period of lower birth rates just after the turn of the millennium.
Pay and Pensions
In addition to the fees issues, there are ongoing disputes around pay and pensions. As in most parts of the economy, pay in universities is not rising at the same rate as inflation, so salaries in practice are actually falling. This could lead to industrial action since the universities have not been keen to award pay raises, and must be less keen to do so now. There will almost certainly be strikes against changes to pensions. This started last year, and early fears of skulduggery by the USS pension fund managers seem to have been well-founded. They had initially stated that the fund was in a bad way, and the only solutions were greater contributions from universities and staff, as well as significant reductions to the final pensions staff would receive. University managers seem to have bought into this, but further investigations revealed that the pessimistic predictions had been exaggerated. The USS, though, does not seem to be retreating from its position. This impending battle deals already flagging morale a significant blow, and bearing up under the weight will require enormous levels of forbearance and solidarity.
If you add these issues – fees, student numbers, shaky balance sheets, pay, and pensions – to the disaster that is Brexit, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel of 2019. Our economy is in bad shape, social inequality is rising, and all of this looks to get worse if we leave the EU by isolating ourselves from the social diversity and exchange that our participation in the EU incorporates. For universities, they become even less able to attract students and staff – and research funding – from EU countries, and perhaps from overseas more generally as we appear less attractive. UK universities may be about to become even more insular and underfunded, at a time when they can least afford to be, either culturally or financially.
Predictions for 2019
What is the best possible prognosis here?
- The government cuts fees but grants extra money – with few strings attached – to help universities better attract and support disadvantaged students;
- Universities agree to raise pay beyond the paltry 1% currently on the table, an offer which has already been rejected by the unions;
- Somehow those universities most at risk sort out their finances without damaging their research or teaching;
- The USS pension acknowledges the mistakes made in its initial valuation, accepts that it is not in such bad shape after all, and minimal changes are made to ongoing pension contributions and the eventual pensions themselves;
- Brexit is reversed, or at least proceeds with the softest option, and we are able to retain access to EU/other international staff, students, and moolah.
I actually can’t see any of these things happening, and it’s heart-breaking, particularly for someone who – perhaps somewhat unrealistically, given the evidence of problems in HE – really buys into the idea of what we do as a collegial, forward-thinking endeavour. It feels like we’re on the edge of a really major fall. 2019 may turn out to be a positive year for me personally, but it looks likely to be an annus horribilis for us as a collective.